Here’s what I want to talk about today: Water changes yarn, and it changes knitted fabric. Sometimes it changes it for the better, sometimes not so much. Knitting swatches — and blocking those swatches — is always described as a critical step in achieving the right fit. And it is. (It’s the only way you can know how big your stitches and rows are, and thus how big your finished object will be.) But it’s also so much more than that, and the “more” is far less often discussed.
I’m not an expert on breeds, fiber characteristics, how yarn is spun … none of it. Not by a long shot. But I know a few things, and a lot of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from knitting and soaking yarn. (Or watching Clara Parkes do it.) If you give it a chance — if you look and touch and listen — yarn will teach you things. So at the risk of sounding didactic, I want to talk a tiny bit about why you should soak your knitting, if you don’t already — especially your swatches.
1.) See that photo up top? It’s an amazing small-batch yarn from Hinterland called Range — a woolen-spun wool/alpaca blend that is so light and airy and cushy I actually have a hard time believing there’s alpaca in it. I met the lovely Hanahlie Beise of Hinterland in Carnation last weekend and she had with her these two skeins of the same yarn. The one on the right is how it’s sold in the skein, and the one on the left has been soaked. See how much plumper it is? I wish you could squish it. It “bloomed” — or fluffed up! — when washed. Yarns like that are my very favorite yarns, but you can’t know how a yarn will behave until you soak it. If you swatch and don’t block, you don’t really know what sort of fabric you’re creating, don’t know what the yarn is capable of — and what it is capable of might affect how it should be knitted. This yarn would benefit from being knitted a little on the loose side so there’s room for those stitches to grow. Right? (Hanahlie gave me a skein of this amazing stuff before we parted ways, and I look forward to figuring out the exact right thing to do with it.)
2) See the photo in the middle? That’s (the now discontinued) Shibui Merino Alpaca. It’s a sweater I started long ago and will apparently never be finishing, but this photo is a good example of the most commonly known result of blocking knitted fabric, which is that it relaxes into itself. Lace opens up; stitch patterns lay flatter. These two sleeves are identical, but the one on the bottom has been blocked. The individual stitches have all settled into their new shapes, and the fabric has become more cohesive, with a very slight halo. In this case, it’s also become more drapey. (Too drapey for my taste. A lot of people like drapey; I happen to not.) If the pattern called for the wool/alpaca Hinterland above and you were substituting this yarn, or vice versa, you’d wind up with a garment that hung and wore and behaved very differently from the designer’s version because the yarns are so different, despite their seemingly-not-that-different fiber content.
3) And then that photo on the bottom? You’ll have to take my word for what’s going on here, but that’s the blocked swatch and one of the unblocked sleeves for the sweater I’m knitting from my Sawkill Farm yarn. Again, this a yarn that blooms a bit when washed — compare the fringe on the left edge of the swatch with the working yarn just above it — and can tolerate a slightly loose gauge. But beyond that, what you’d find if you could see and touch these two things in person is that the swatch feels very different from the skein or the unblocked sleeve. Again, I’m no expert, but apparently some yarns are washed one last time after they’re spun (before they’re skeined) while others are not. This one feels lovely in the skein but seemingly hasn’t had that post-spin wash, so there’s a little trace of machine oils on the yarn — again, not uncommon. (This was pointed out to me by more astute friends. I wouldn’t have been able to explain the difference.) The washed swatch is a clearer grey and it feels as light as air. If you’ve ever felt lopi — the yarn of Iceland — you’d be able to guess that there’s some Icelandic fleece in the mix here. It has that weightlessness and fuzziness, which wasn’t apparent until it was soaked.
When you soak a piece of knitted fabric, you might find these things — yarn blooming beautifully, getting softer, taking on an appropriate drape (or not). Or you might find that your nice plump cables fall flat, or that your heel stitch exhales to the point that your formerly perfect-fitting hat falls down over your face. (These are real examples from my own life.) Different breeds and blends do different things. Worsted-spun is different from woolen-spun. An undyed yarn can knit up and behave differently than the same yarn plus dye. All of these nuances and complexities are what make yarn and knitting so fascinating. And the best way to begin to understand and appreciate it on that level is to simply run some tepid water* and give that swatch a dunk.
*For those about to ask what I recommend as far as wool wash, my longtime favorite soap to use when blocking knits is the bar soap that I’ve recently been able to start selling. Anything with lanolin — which is stripped from wool in varying degrees during processing — will increase the softness of wool when used.